Composerly Thoughts

ASCAP Composer + BMI Lyricist. Yikes, what's a self-publisher to do?!

ASCAP Composer + BMI Lyricist. Yikes, what's a self-publisher to do?!

WARNING: This is a seriously geeky article which may fry the brain of an unsuspecting music lover. Alternately, it may serve as a small glimpse into the less romantic side of being a composer-publisher.

Most composers and publishers register their new compositions and publications with the performing rights organization with which they are affiliated, typically ASCAP, BMI, SESAC or SOCAN. If the composer, lyricist and publisher are all affiliated with the same performing rights organization, also known as a PRO, this is a pretty straightforward process. But when the writers belong to different PROs, title registration gets more complicated. (Don’t assume you know how to do this correctly. I sure didn’t!)

Faced with registering such a piece last month, I turned to the internet for answers, starting with the website of my own PRO, ASCAP. After an exhaustive and fruitless search, I finally got on the phone with a patient and helpful ASCAP representative, who walked me through the process of registering works whose writers belong to different PROs. I wrote this article so that other composer-publishers won’t have to go through the same arduous process I did! This method of title registration is not immediately intuitive, but it ensures that royalties will be paid to the proper parties.

Here’s the scenario. I want to register a new musical composition entitled Kick Ass New Work, which is published by my publishing company, Seafarer Press. Kick-Ass New Work has music composed by me – Elizabeth Alexander (ASCAP) – and lyrics written by Jane Poet (BMI). Jane Poet ecstatically signed a contract with me allowing me to set her words to music AND allowing Seafarer Press to publish that music.

Okay, are you ready to dig in?

In order to understand this process from a legal standpoint, it’s really important to know this: When Seafarer Press publishes Kick-Ass New Work, it is mainly concerned with promoting and distributing that piece of music, but that’s not how the music industry sees it. Legally, publishing is seen as an activity which actually “represents the writer(s).” And because Seafarer Press is an ASCAP-affiliated publisher, it is never ever ever permitted to “represent” a differently-affiliated writer in any way, even a teeny tiny bit. (Sorry, Jane Poet!)

Before I go any further, I want to review how it works when an ASCAP composer-publisher like me registers a setting of a poem by Fred Poet, who is either ASCAP-affiliated or unaffiliated. Assuming Fred and I are splitting the writer shares equally, the percentages would be as follows:

  • PUBLISHER SHARE: Seafarer Press (ASCAP) 50%
  • WRITER SHARES: Elizabeth Alexander (ASCAP) 25% and Fred Poet (ASCAP or unaffiliated) 25%

Do you see how this makes Seafarer Press the representative of both my 25% AND Fred Poet’s 25%? That works for Fred, but it’s not going to work for Jane Poet, who is affiliated with a competing PRO. So when I register Kick-Ass New Work with ASCAP, I have be careful that Seafarer Press only represents my percentage, and not Jane’s.

Still with me?

Okay, here’s how to register Kick-Ass New Work, as outlined by the patient and helpful ASCAP rep:

  • PUBLISHER SHARES: Seafarer Press (ASCAP) 37.5% and Jane Poet (BMI) 12.5%
  • WRITER SHARES: Elizabeth Alexander (ASCAP) 37.5% and Jane Poet (BMI) 12.5%

I know, your head just started spinning! So did mine! But see how the ASCAP percentages are identical and the BMI percentages are identical? That’s what we want. As you probably also noticed, Seafarer Press’ publisher royalty is now smaller, and my composer royalty is larger, but the ASCAP portion still represents 75% of the total royalty. And the BMI portion is now divided between publisher and writer royalties, but it still represents 25% of the total royalty.

Yippee, this completely takes care of the ASCAP portion of the registration. MY part is finished!

But what about Jane Poet’s part?

Yikes! As an ASCAP composer-publisher, I cannot actually do the BMI part of the registration, even if I wanted to. That part of the registration must be done on the poet’s end. Still, let’s not throw Jane to the wolves. It’s only respectful for me to give her some guidance. Here are the pertinent pieces of information about Kick-Ass New Work that Jane will need to register the work with BMI:

  • Whether Kick-Ass New Work is considered “serious” or “classical music,” or what the industry considers to be “commercial.”
  • Whether the piece consists of entirely original music
  • Whether piece is 1) complete in one movement or 2) part of a multi-movement piece
  • The official title of the piece (In this case, Kick-Ass New Work)
  • Any alternate title of the piece (In this case, Kicky Boots)
  • The duration of the piece
  • The instrumentation of the piece: Harmonica and Tuning Fork
  • The legal publisher name (In this case, Seafarer Press)
  • The full legal composer name (In my own case, that’s “Sarah Elizabeth Alexander”)
  • And lastly, the royalty share percentages exactly as I reported them to ASCAP:
    • PUBLISHER SHARES: Seafarer Press (ASCAP) 37.5% and Jane Poet (BMI) 12.5%
    • WRITER SHARES: Elizabeth Alexander (ASCAP) 37.5% and Jane Poet (BMI) 12.5%

If you’re a super-thorough conscientious-type like me, explaining this wonky registration process to a poetic collaborator could suck up the better part of an otherwise awe-inspiring morning! But now that I’ve posted this handy situation-specific article, all you have to do is send your poet a link to this page, along with the ten pieces of information listed above.

Whew! What a relief! Now we can all go back to creating music again.

Copyright 2016 by Elizabeth Alexander


** A FINAL NOTE: I feel obliged to mention that this process works perfectly well for small self-publishers like me, but not as well for publishers with hundreds or thousands of writers. Unless Jane Poet actually establishes a publishing company, she will not receive the publisher portion of her royalty. If Seafarer Press were to grow into a publishing giant with many BMI writers, I might ask a lawyer who to create an entirely separate division of Seafarer Press (with a different name) which would join BMI. In that case Jane could receive her entire royalty without having a publisher. The royalty would be reported 50/50 all the way, like this:

  • PUBLISHER SHARES: Seafarer Press (ASCAP) 50% and Fair Seas Press (BMI) 50%
  • WRITER SHARES: Elizabeth Alexander (ASCAP) 50% and Jane Poet (BMI) 50%


Take care, and keep believing impossible things —